Concierges on the cheap

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The concierge desk in the lobby of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel was doing a brisk business on a recent Sunday afternoon. Located a few strides north of Union Square, the Drake is best known for its colorful doormen, who work the curb out front in cartoonishly red costumes. But on this day the doormen seemed to be just killing time, while the concierge, a tall blond named Jill Schultze, was dealing with the long line inside.

"How can I help you?" Schultze asked the elderly couple at the front of the queue. They told her they were interested in taking a bus sightseeing tour. She looked pleased, recommended a specific tour of the Napa wine country, then picked up her phone to make the reservation.

"That was easy," the wife said once the transaction was complete.

For the next half hour, Schultze — whom I watched from a nearby chair without her knowing that I was a journalist — set up one bus tour after the next. In fact, that’s all she seemed to do — or, at least, all she did well. When a party asked for a recommendation for Indian food, she suggested the nearby Naan-N-Curry on Eddy Street, a restaurant that (apparently unknown to her) closed down last year.

One might expect better of a concierge at a place like the Drake, which boasts a AAA three-diamond rating. But the Drake is one of many hotels in San Francisco that have decided professional, in-house concierges are too expansive to bankroll. Instead, the hotels are starting to lease their concierge desks to outside companies, often charging $1,000 a month for a spot in their lobbies. The outside companies, most of which are established vendors in the tourism world, happily incur the cost — and the responsibility of the desk — in exchange for exclusive access to the hotels’ clientele.

Tower Tours, the bus sightseeing company affiliated with the Drake, is the largest player in the growing outsourced concierge business. The company has created a sister enterprise called Tour Links, which runs the concierge desks at five San Francisco hotels: the Drake, the Argonaut, the Best Western Tuscan Inn, the Hyatt Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Hotel Whitcomb. Tour Links concierges like Schultze can range from longtime professionals to summer interns. They’re rotated from one hotel to the next, depending on how well a particular hotel likes them and where the holes in the Tour Links rotation might be. According to one former employee, Tour Links concierges are required to book Tower Tours bus sightseeing trips. The employee told the Guardian the concierges are required to book a minimum number of tours per month, although higher-ups within Tour Links deny there are quotas.

"Our tour desk do provide information about Tower Tours," Hagen Choi, the president of Tour Links and Tower Tours, conceded, speaking in choppy English. "But our concierge also provide high-level service. As long as guests get good service, it doesn’t matter who operates the desk."

Laura Meith, the assistant general manager at the Tuscan Inn, had high praise for the service Tour Links provides. She said her concierges are well-informed, loyal, and outgoing. But Meith also admitted that she worked for Tower Tours as a concierge in 2004 (before the bus sightseeing company formalized Tour Links). She said she was thrown into the fray with little training — "I quickly discovered Zagat and Google and really just utilized those resources" — and said she was denied tips and commissions.

"Basically, concierges can make commissions on anything they sell," Meith said. "At an outsourced concierge desk, the concierges don’t make the money, the company does. The incentive is to drive the sales." She added, "From the guests’ perspective, they don’t know, nor do they care."

The Holiday Inn at Fisherman’s Wharf and the Radisson Wharf both currently lease their desks to Airport Express, the mom-and-pop shuttle company that competes with Lorrie’s Airport Service. Like Tower Tours, Airport Express has created a sister enterprise, Concierge of America, to handle that responsibility. Gil Sherabi, Concierge of America’s head concierge, told us his company allows its concierges to keep their tips and doesn’t mandate any sales quota. They do, however, exclusively book Airport Express tours; it wouldn’t make financial sense if they didn’t.

"We only care about serving the customers," Sherabi said. "We don’t have any quotas on anything. As long as the hotel is happy, we’re happy too."

The Hyatt Regency has handed over its concierge desk to Presentation Services, the company that manages the hotel’s event technologies, such as stage sets, projectors, and audio-video. Presentation Services runs the desk in exchange for the business the hotel provides it. The four-star Westin Market Street leased its concierge desk to Tour Links until last week. According to several inside sources, SuperShuttle, Lorrie’s, and Airport Express are in a bidding war to fill the vacancy.

And then there’s Shell Vacations, the nationwide time-share company that owns the Donatello Hotel, the Inn at the Opera, and the Suites at Fisherman’s Wharf. Concierges at each of these locations are required to cajole guests into taking time-share tours for Shell Vacations. Shell Vacations also runs the concierge desk at the Sheraton Wharf, where its concierges pull the same stunt.

"Our concierges do have quotas they have to meet," Yvonne Merzenich, the assistant general manager at the Donatello, said. The sales center "has negotiated packages with local restaurants, so that if guests want a nice meal, we’ll offer them $100 off that meal if they go to one of our time-share presentations."

Professional, in-house concierges are understandably concerned about the long-term viability of their jobs and the impact of outsourcing on their reputations. I met with one member of Les Clefs d’Or, the prestigious concierge association, who called this new wave of outsourced concierges "un-American and absurd." Another told us that hotel managers need to get their priorities straight.

"It’s a difficult situation because the concierges do not generate revenue," she said. (All the concierges quoted in this story requested to remain anonymous, as they’re prohibited from speaking to the media without the consent of their hotels.) "But the concierges provide the services that the guests come back for. You can’t put a dollar amount on all that we provide."

Whether guests feel that way is a different matter. I caught up with Sandra Curtis, a tourist from New Castle, Australia, who was staying at the Drake recently. When I told her that the concierge who had just helped arrange her bus tour worked for a bus tour company, Curtis was unfazed.

"The concierge was very helpful," Curtis said. "And that’s the way it’s happening now, isn’t it? We’re from Australia, and everything’s outsourced there too."

Susan McDonough, a fellow Drake guest from Cairo, Egypt, was less enthusiastic.

"I question [whether] if I ask the concierge anything else other than about bus tours, will she work just as hard?" McDonough said. "It’s a way for the hotel to cut corners. I don’t like it."

Last year the Wall Street Journal was the first mainstream media outlet to identify the outsourced concierge phenomenon. In a story headlined "The Concierge’s Secret Agenda," the Journal revealed that many of America’s top hotel chains are leasing their concierge desks to third-party employers. The chains include Hyatt, Marriott, Starwood, and Kimpton. Online travel giant Expedia.com had already acquired control of 38 concierge desks when the article hit the streets. Ticket vendor Vegas.com had obtained control of six desks, with plans to open up shop in several dozen more hotels in 2007. As many as 15 hotels in Manhattan had already caved in, and there were more in places like Chicago, Orlando, Las Vegas, and San Francisco.

Unmentioned in the Journal‘s exposé was just how unruly the outsourced concierge game is in San Francisco. The national trend in the hotel industry is toward large-scale outsourced concierge providers, companies like Travelocity, Expedia.com, and Vegas.com. It’s the providers who are expanding their services and courting new hotels. But in San Francisco, midtier hotels are the ones driving the murky business. Many have leased their concierge desks multiple times, unsatisfied with the service they were receiving but unwilling to pay for better.

The Westin Market Street has switched four times, transitioning from in-house concierges to Gray Line Bus Tours, back to in-house, then to Tour Links. Last week the hotel fired Tour Links and is looking for another company to take its place. The Drake has switched outside providers four times as well. In just the past few years, it has fired Tour Links, hired Lorrie’s Airport Service, fired it, and rehired Tour Links.

Ed Gunderson, the Drake’s general manager, said his hotel outsources its desk because concierges are "pretty cost prohibitive" and "if you can find a really good [outside] company and can keep some autonomy over the concierges they bring in, it’s the best of both worlds." When asked if fluctuating from one provider to another is really the best of both worlds, especially for the guests, he replied, "Tour Links is providing a service we’re very happy with."

Adding to the turmoil is Choi. Most professional concierges we spoke to don’t like Choi. "He’s terrible and very litigious" was how one Les Clefs d’Or concierge described the Tour Links and Tower Tours president. "He’s scared the shit out of me." Many concierges associate the outsourcing phenomenon that’s costing them their jobs with Choi and Tour Links more so than with the hotels.

The Northern California Concierge Association has urged its members to strike back by enacting an embargo on Tower Tours bus trips. (There are three primary bus tour providers in San Francisco — Tower Tours, Gray Line, and Super Sightseeing — and each offers comparable sightseeing tours around the city, to the Napa wine country, and to Muir Woods.) The NCCA also won’t let Tour Links concierges join its ranks. "He can drink my blood, and I can drink his," one NCCA member said of Choi. "I think that’s a mutual feeling there."

Earlier this summer, I headed to Tour Links headquarters for a chat with the controversial Choi. I wanted to gain some general insights into the outsourced concierge phenomenon and some deeper ones into the operations of the city’s largest provider. No surprise: Tour Links and Tower Tours share the same headquarters, an impressive office on Beach Street with an unobstructed view of the Hyde Street Pier. I found Choi holed up inside, in a small, cluttered workplace. His desk was strewn with papers, and his walls were festooned with pictures of his daughter (a former Tour Links concierge) and a framed copy of the Wall Street Journal "The Concierge’s Secret Agenda" report. Choi had even highlighted his company’s name in the article.

To my surprise, I liked Choi immediately. He was funny and personable, and he spoke about his company with disarming candor. He told me that in 2003, Expedia.com came to town and started cutting deals with hotels behind the scenes. Once contracts had been finalized, he said, it approached tourism vendors looking for hands to run its newly acquired desks. With more than 20 years of hotel experience — among other things, he used to sell used furniture from hotels undergoing renovation — Choi recognized concierge outsourcing as the newest trend and jumped on the bandwagon.

"The industry is evolving all the time," he told us. "We have to go along with it."

Choi said Expedia.com is still the puppet master at most of the hotels where Tour Links operates. (Expedia.com officials didn’t return numerous calls requesting an interview.) Choi also confided that it’s financially tough to get by in the outsourced concierge business, what with having to pay a hotel for a service it should be paying the lessee to provide. He added that most outside concierge services in the city don’t have the financial resources to expand and that he didn’t know if Tour Links would still be around in a few years.

"We’ll see," he said, his eyes twinkling and blinking in rapid succession. "But if not me, it’ll be somebody else."<\!s>*